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A recipe for disaster: COVID response based on the industrial food system

A new report by FIAN International says the industrial food system, rather than feeding the world during the pandemic, is pushing many more to hunger and malnutrition.

Following its preliminary findings in April, FIAN International releases a new report documenting the impacts of COVID-19 on people’s right to food. The report underlines that a number of occupational sectors and population groups are being pushed to hunger and malnutrition even further, as a result of COVID-19 mitigation measures centered around the industrial food system. Building on dozens of submissions by local and national partners around the world, FIAN International’s report also sheds light on the positive impact of solidarity actions.

According to the report, proponents of the Malthusian approach to food crises – which is based on the mathematical relation between available food (offer) and population needs (demand) - would most likely deny that there is currently a food crisis. However, this approach disregards the impact that the Coronavirus crisis is having on the physical and economic accessibility, adequacy and sustainability of food.  In other words, while food may be available, some marginalized groups are simply not able to access sufficient and adequate food, as a consequence of the pandemic.

 “In certain countries and among certain populations and occupational sectors - including people rendered poor, being discriminated against, and those working in the food system - the existence of multiple food crises is undeniable. With the pandemic, mitigation and recovery measures have often relied on the industrial food system and have neglected the role of small-scale food producers and local food systems. This approach is pushing these groups, even more so than before, to hunger and malnutrition”, says Ana María Suárez-Franco, FIAN International Permanent Representative at the UN.

Among its findings, the report highlights:

  • Increasing and unregulated food prices are making food inaccessible for millions, with instances of tripling and quadrupling prices. This is happening as a result of speculation, with food price volatility affecting numerous countries, including Argentina, Ecuador, Uganda, South Africa, France and El Salvador.
  • Tons of crops and livestock are being destroyed and euthanized respectively, as local markets are being shut down in Ecuador, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Mozambique and the US. This leaves hundreds of thousands of small-scale producers with no income and millions of people with no access to fresh, diverse and healthy food.
  • The US, Colombian and Ecuadorian governments, among many others, are favoring the consumption of agro-industrial and ultra-processed food by virtue of prioritizing supermarkets over local markets. Diets based on these foods exacerbate our likelihood to suffer malnutrition, thereby weakening our immune system’s capacity to resist diseases.
  • Business activities that are harmful to the environment and human rights have increased as environmental policies have been relaxed and corporate lobby has strengthened during the pandemic. Concrete cases have been identified in the US, China, Cambodia, Philippines, Colombia, Bolivia and South Africa, and are reaching beyond their borders.
  • Women are affected disproportionately by COVID-19. From being more exposed to domestic violence and losing their jobs in both the informal and formal sectors under lockdown measures, to facing increasing burden of unpaid care work. In some countries, because school meal is the only food family has, women might sacrifice her portion for her family members, thus impacting on their RTFN.    
  • Structural racism has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on black communities, with higher COVID-19-related hospitalizations and risk of infection, as well as overrepresentation in the jobs most affected by the pandemic.
  • Lack of assistance and support to indigenous peoples have led to increasing number of deaths, particularly among elders who are seen as the wisdom, language and knowledge holders in the communities.
  • Food workers, from those working in industrial meat production in Europe and the US, to migrant agricultural workers in Germany, street vendors in South Africa and fisherfolk in India, are often more exposed to infection, precarious work conditions and starvation.

Against this backdrop, the sudden lockdowns disrupting local food supply have sparked diverse solidarity actions in both rural and urban areas.  Spain, Brazil, South Africa and Colombia are examples where local communities and social movements have mobilized to ensure access to food.

“Although our governments are ultimately responsible to make sure the right to food of populations is ensured, solidarity actions have been key during the pandemic. Who knows how many families would have made it without these support networks,” says Suárez-Franco.

Indeed, some innovative ideas by these movements have gained recognition and support by local and national governments.

“Small-scale food producers are finding appropriate ways to make healthy food available through open-air markets, direct sales and other distribution channels. Together with consumers, they are organizing platforms to establish new rural and peri-urban territorial food chains. In addition to supporting such initiatives, governments need to take the step towards the transformation of our food systems: this is not only crucial to face the current pandemic, but also to tackle the impact of future ones. The clock is ticking and we need to take urgent action,” adds Suárez-Franco.

Download the report.
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